The deadly dilemma of Libya's missing weapons
Human Rights Watch discovered several weapons-storage sites in Libya where surface-to-air missiles are missing, raising concerns that the weapons could arm an Iraq-style insurgency.
As Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) hunt for and collect the weapons that fueled Muammar Qaddafi's war machine, they are quickly learning that some choice pieces of his vast stockpile of mines, mortars, and explosives are missing.Skip to next paragraph
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At newly discovered weapons-storage sites, thousands of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are unaccounted for. At one unguarded facility, empty packing crates and documents reveal that 482 sophisticated Russian SA-24 missiles were shipped to Libya in 2004, and now are gone. With a range of 11,000 feet, the SA-24 is Moscow’s modern version of the American “stinger,” which in the 1980s helped the US-backed Afghan mujahideen turn their war against the Soviet Union.
With Libya already facing great uncertainty in the post-Qaddafi era, seepage from unsecured weapons stores could further threaten its nascent revolutionary government by arming a loyalist insurgency – or providing regional rebel groups and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb with a lethal arsenal.
Related: Qaddafi: A look back
“If these weapons fall in the wrong hands, all of North Africa will be a no-fly zone,” says Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who has brought a number of weapons-storage sites to the NTC's attention.
“That’s the Western concern,” Mr. Bouckaert tells journalists at the site, noting the interest of Al Qaeda affiliates and regional insurgents in being able to easily target aircraft. “But what poses the biggest danger to Libyan people – as we know from Iraq – is what’s laying right behind you ... all of these tank shells and mortars, because that’s what people turn into car bombs.”
Libya's vast weapons cache
HRW played a similar role in Iraq, where it identified unprotected weapons sites to US forces on the ground. Many of those arsenals were never protected, and provided the firepower for years of insurgency.
The sophistication and vast size of Libya’s military hardware – and the fact that it was widely dispersed during the NATO airstrikes – complicates the effort to control it, as the Tripoli Military Council, which is tasked with handling security in the capital, consolidates its grip just 2-1/2 weeks after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi.
“So Western intelligence agencies have been calling us for information about the SAMs; [but] they’re not too interested in the stuff that’s going to hurt the Libyans, which is what’s still here to loot,” said Bouckaert.
“The SA-24 is on the top wish list of Iran; the US tried to block its transfer from Russia to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez because they were afraid it was going to get into Iranian hands a few years ago,” he adds. US reporting from that 2009 sale – including WikiLeaks cables – also emphasized the dangers of the SA-24 being passed on by the anti-American Mr. Chavez, to boost FARC rebels in Colombia or drug lords in Mexico.
At an education ministry book-storage and printing facility in southern Tripoli that was turned into a makeshift weapons depot, the long green shipping crates for the shoulder-fired SA-24 – along with crates that once contained older versions, the SA-7 and SA-14 – were found empty. It is adjacent to a Khamis Brigade base commanded by and named after one of Qaddafi's sons.